By Naomi Gross
For the past 13 years, I’ve been teaching Fashion Merchandising Management (FMM) at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Prior to teaching, I worked in retail for nearly 15 years. Throughout my career as both a professional and professor, I have watched both the retail industry and retail-focused academic curriculums change drastically, but never more so than in the past few years
Last February an article on Big Data appeared in The New York Times equating knowledge of analytics with job opportunities. This month, the Harvard Business Review is running a cover story on big data. Earlier this week, I received an invitation from my alma mater, Oberlin College, to support curricular innovation to “integrate quantitative analysis and data-informed reasoning into all majors and programs.” And just yesterday at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I presented a case study on Big Data to faculty. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
While a groundswell may be building around understanding big data today, less than ten years ago, it was a different story.
Retail companies acknowledged that they were already collecting vast quantities of information about their customers but did not know how to leverage it. Today, with infinitely more points of contact between companies and their customers, there is far more information available – and companies are becoming more adept at capturing it.
In the classroom
Many college students complete basic courses in data management and statistics with the help of Microsoft Access and Excel. While Excel is still a powerful tool, it can no longer manage the volumes and types of data captured daily. Today, perhaps one tiny crumb of data can be reviewed and evaluated on an Excel spreadsheet. This one crumb may represent only one of thousands or more crumbs left by a single individual. This one crumb does not offer a robust picture of the preferences that can be garnered when multiple dimensions can be evaluated simultaneously. Basics statistics serves structured data in a database, but does not adequately address unstructured data streams that exist today.
In order to teach students about how companies are harnessing this data, educational institutions must bring together the areas where these skills are taught as a discipline with the majors their institutions offer. To make this happen, students must be actively engaged in the conversation. In our Fashion Merchandising program, we have long taught our students that retail is the confluence of art and science. This has never been more important than it is today. It is critical that students understand how the science relates to their major. There must be relevance, accessibility and integration to show students what’s in it for them.
Partnering with IBM
Last January, IBM arranged a lecture for our students on the topic of retail forecasting and big data. The lecture took place in an unorthodox place– a bowling alley! IBM’s Chief Scientist Mike Haydock described Watson’s appearance on Jeopardy! as a vehicle to engage students about how to make sense of growing structured and unstructured data sets. He made the concept of big data accessible, and it was an ‘A-Ha’ moment for many of the students.
From there, we continued to turn the wheels and look at ways we could work alongside IBM to create even more ‘A-Ha’ moments for our students. After months of planning, FIT hosted a day of events that started with a presentation around the value of interdisciplinary education for faculty. This event showcased the collaboration between the FMM Major in the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business & Technology, the Science and Math department in the School of Liberal Arts, and the Director of the Writing Studio and Coordinator of the Critical Thinking Initiative across the campus. In the evening students were treated to a panel discussion with thought leaders from IBM and the industry that served to engage the students is the dialogue. The panel provided tangible examples to show students how and why this confluence of art and science is so critically important.
There are many job opportunities available for students with a clear understanding of big data and analytics. The biggest take away for students yesterday was that understanding how customers tick is just as attractive as being a buyer or planner for retailers. By mastering a skill that is so sought after across industries, whether it be retail or automotive or pharmaceuticals, creates a competitive advantage for upcoming graduates.
Retailers who embrace big data analytics will gain a competitive advantage over those who do not. And the same holds true for educational institutions. The race is on!